Consider an alternate scenario: All aspects of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to the point of the final lap, including conflicting lapped/unlapped cars messages, are identical save that (notional leader) Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team have not – unlike Mercedes with (second-placed) Lewis Hamilton – (twice) availed themselves of ‘free’ tyre changes under a safety car.
Would the global outcry have been as concerted as transpired in the highly emotional aftermath of the most closely fought season in almost 40 years? Would Red Bull boss Christian Horner have led cheers that the right driver had won? Would Mercedes boss Toto Wolff have spoken out so vociferously about “personal integrity” and his wife Susie tweeted her hopes that by next year March the FIA has “sporting integrity”?
Would Hamilton have appeared at the FIA gala in Paris on Thursday evening and Verstappen and Horner boycotted the event? Indeed, would Wolff still refuse to talk to race director Michael Masi?
There are no hard and fast answers to such theoretical questions, but my perceptions of just such an alternate situation is that Horner and Verstappen would have protested to all and sundry that they had been robbed and demanded redress, while Wolff and Hamilton would have accepted the silverware while shooting down accusations that the wrong driver had won world motor racing’s top prize.
“The decisions that have been taken in the last four minutes of this race have robbed Lewis Hamilton from a deserved world championship,” said Wolff four days after the race. “His driving, particularly in the last four races, was faultless. He had a commanding lead on Sunday in Abu Dhabi from the get-go.”
Wolff could, though, have referred a quartet of four faultless races from Verstappen – as could Horner about either driver – just as readily as either could have found four faults in their driving. And that is the point: they and their respective teams obviously back their own man rather than viewing the race (or season) through a prism of regulations they themselves had helped shape and voted for.
Perceptions are in the mind’s eye and could, of course, be readily right or totally wrong or somewhere in between, but until irrevocably disproven they are the unbridled truth to the beholder. To quote philosopher and father of lateral thinking Edward de Bono: “Perception is real even when it is not reality.” But, like every F1 fan, I am entitled to my perceptions.
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A case could be made that perceptions of the events during and after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were twisted and manipulated by all affected parties – from drivers through teams to race direction and stewards and some partisan media – to suit their agendas, positions and nationalities. Fans sided according to their favourite, with many still clinging to convenient interpretations and perceptions of the rules.
Such perceptions linger long after the results were declared final; after all threats of legal redress were withdrawn and all silverware distributed. Many viewers have vowed never to watch another grand prix, which is both an indicator of their disgust at what they perceived and a sign of ignorance of the rules. But Masi did not break any rules – the rules themselves were broken over time.
What Masi did do is apply them as he interpreted (perceived) them and while his interpretations may be open to question, as it is in the Mercedes camp (and amongst Hamilton’s followers) but not – surprise, surprise – by the Red Bull and Verstappen’s growing army of fans.
On Sunday in Abu Dhabi, he effectively acted as a policeman on point duty, directing traffic based on his judgement. That said, he is certainly stretched, and the FIA needs to consider an assistant (or two) to carry some of the administrative burdens he carries both as race director and in his other roles.
In August in an interview looking back on Masi’s (then) 50 grands prix as race director, he outlined his job description: “There’s obviously my role as the single seater sporting director, I have a lot more to do with the entire single seater ladder on a day-to-day basis [than did predecessor Charlie Whiting]. So all the way from F1 to F4.
“Then I have my core F1 team that does the operations, the IT et cetera and I’m the safety delegate for all the F1 events. I sit on the Circuits Commission, I do all of the circuit inspections for all the F1 events, new events, proposed events, current circuits, etc.”
Masi applied the regulations as required by constantly evolving circumstances during the heat of a finale battle. Had he manipulated any articles he would surely have been judged harshly by stewards, who twice heard (and rejected) protests from Mercedes that Sunday evening.
Mercedes on that Sunday evening called for the stewards to “remediate the matter by amending the
classification to reflect the positions at the end of the penultimate lap” – i.e., reversing the first two positions to be reversed, an unprecedented situation save where obvious mathematical errors were committed by officials. For logistics, regulatory and safety reasons the race could not be rerun later, while only stewards – not Masi – could decide to freeze the results as of lap 57. That they did not indicates that they fully supported Masi’s interpretation of the regulations, and, crucially, his decisions.
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On the flipside, had the matter progressed to appeal (or civilian) court the verdict would either have backed Masi’s decisions or found against them – with no middle road. The former verdict would have resulted in an inconveniently delayed crowning of Verstappen.
The latter verdict? Given the race could not be rerun, the only alternative would be to declare it null and void – as though it had never started – in which case the classification at end of the previous race would have decided the title. Given it was a draw on 369.5 points after that race, it would have gone to count-back on highest number of wins – again resulting in an inconveniently delayed crowning of Verstappen…
None of this, though, implies all is rosy in the F1 garden – far from it, in fact. Indeed, last Wednesday’s World Motor Sport Council meeting seemingly – note – acknowledged as much by appointing a commission of enquiry into “the sequence of events that took place following the incident on lap 53.”
A subsequent, cautiously-worded statement said: “This matter will be discussed and addressed with all teams and drivers to draw any lessons from this situation and clarity to be provided to participants, media, and fans about the current regulations to preserve the competitive nature of our sport while ensuring the safety of drivers and officials” (emphasis added).
There is no way of predicting the outcome but note the ‘draw any lessons’ clause – which could be taken to imply that there are few (or no) lessons to be learned; equally, the statement underscored the need for safety. The scene could be set for an exoneration of Masi for acting within his remit by ensuring safety standards were met while satisfying a long-standing inviolate decrees that no race should finish under a safety car and to ‘let them race’.
“These rules were drummed into Michael from the first day [in 2019] and since by everybody, from Jean [ex-FIA president Todt] and F1 downwards and by all team bosses plus the F1 Commission,” a source told RaceFans in Paris last week. “It looks bad on TV and leaves fans on a low.”
There was seeming conflict between Masi’s initial message at 18:27 (local) that ‘lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake’ during the safety car phase while they waited for debris from Nicolas Latifi’s crashed Williams to be cleared, superseded four minutes later by the massage ‘lapped cars 4 (NOR) – 14 (ALO) – 31 (OCO) – 16 (LEC) – 5 (VET) to overtake safety car’.
What happened in the four minutes between those two messages? Simply put: Latifi’s brakes unexpectedly flared up as the car was cleared; thus, Masi, who had been told by the (local) clerk of course that it would take two laps to clear the car leaving at least three racing laps, saw the remaining race distance reduced from four to two or even one lap. Those inviolate decrees came into play, and he acted in terms of sporting regulation article 15.3(e), which states:
“The Race Director shall have overriding authority in the following matters and the clerk of the course may give orders in respect of them only with his express agreement: e) Use of the safety car.”
Crucially, in terms of F1’s governance procedures these regulations were agreed with all teams, and at no stage did teams question these provisions until Masi exercised that prerogative. In fact, the teams effectively hold a veto over the regulations in that no changes may be effected unless eight of their number. If blame is to be apportioned the teams cannot be exonerated; equally the stewards found no fault in Masi’s decision.
On Abu Dhabi Sunday, ahead of the race, I spoke to McLaren team boss Zak Brown about paddock politics unrelated to the event itself. His comments were intriguing, to say the least: “I think [teams] should have less power. You know, we’ve only got politics because we’ve got such a big vote. There’d be less politics if we had less power…”
However, that Horner had been on the blower to Masi after the first message, and that the instruction was subsequently turned on its head gave rise to suggestions that he favoured Verstappen by kow-towing to the Red Bull team boss. Those close to him are adamant he, Masi, has never favoured any driver throughout his career, but a refusal to cede to Wolff’s demands that the decision be reversed fuelled these perceptions.
There are, of course, allegations that Max has gotten away with overly robust driving during this season and these were cited as proof of favouritism, but stewards, not Masi, take such decisions. If there is any favouritism it cannot come from Masi, who does not have authority to hand down penalties (or favours). Penalty inconsistencies, too, are out of his hands – he merely flags up what he considers to be transgressions.
Which brings us neatly to perceptions of the stewards: while these are independent – I can vouch for the system, having attended four stewarding courses as observer – the major issue is they wear FIA shirts and present themselves as FIA officials while claiming independence.
Some of their number sit on the WMSC, and that must change to shift perceptions that they are entrenched in the system. Judges don’t sit in parliament or have offices in police stations.
Then there is Liberty’s commercial leverage of F1: While (recently-introduced) broadcasting of team folk arguing with Masi can make for good TV, the fact is only select conversations are broadcast, potentially conveying false impressions that such discussions are recent developments – which is not necessarily the case – while broadcasts tend to carry only ‘spicy’ bits. Such imbalances do F1 no favours, particularly among emerging fans.
These factors weighted heavily on F1 when it most mattered, and RaceFans understands these aspects will fall under the WMSC spotlight, which was given top priority by incoming president Mohammed Ben Sulayem during his first meetings with staff.
He should prioritise the commission over any inquiry into Hamilton’s absence from the gala, and, indeed, over any other business, for the sport’s top championship hinges upon perceptions of unethical conduct. The first step in this direction should be wholesale rewrite of the regulations to remove ‘all’ (not ‘any’) conflicting clauses which enable multi-interpretations.
That is where the real problem lies, for that would reduce Masi’s powers. And, while he is at it, the new president should clip the powers of the teams – on- and off-radio. That should be the only alternate scenario.
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